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Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast
LINEAR THINKING

Inside the Flat Earth Conference, Where the World’s Oldest Conspiracy Theory Is Hot Again

Thanks to YouTube, an idea discredited thousands of years ago attracts die-hards, grifters, and trolls. They even have their own convention.

Kelly Weill11.17.18 9:00 PM ET

DENVER—“In five years, everyone will know the Earth is flat,” Scott Simons tells me as we wait in line for the second annual Flat Earth Conference.

Scott, holding the Utah license plate “ITSFLAT,” is explaining how the Flat Earth revolution will bring “societal collapse” because the bulk of our knowledge comes from Round Earth institutions.

“It’s globalism,” his wife Julie interjects. The term, a favorite of President Donald Trump, has become an anti-Semitic euphemism, attached to a far-right conspiracy about Jews controlling the world. I make what must be a funny face, because Julie tries to clarify.

“Globalism,” she repeats, and draws a circle with her hands to illustrate.

Ah. Globe. Yes.

Thousands of years after ancient Greeks began referencing Earth as a sphere in mathematical proofs, people who believe in a flat Earth have become a movement. They’ve found their voice in the disinformation age, fueled by YouTube videos. For true believers, it’s more than just a conspiracy theory. It’s whole world view, a level plane onto which hucksters, trolls, and Christian fundamentalists can insert their own ideologies.

In an age of rising conspiracy theories—voter fraud, QAnon, anti-vaxxers, chemtrails—Flat Earth might be the most foundational conspiracy theory of them all.

Under the Dome

The conference that drew hundreds took place Thursday and Friday at the Crowne Plaza, a Denver airport hotel and convention center. It’s located on an unfriendly bit of highway, so few of us leave, opting instead to mill about in this enclosed world of hotel and restaurant and conference center. At the hotel bar, a Flat Earther tells me about the supposed nonexistence of certain intercontinental flights, two of which I have personally taken within the past four years.

It seems incredibly easy, even natural, to go insane here. Both clocks in my hotel room are an hour ahead, even though Daylight Saving Time ended 11 days ago. Someone keeps walking around whistling the theme music to Westworld, the TV show about a fake world inside a dome. Not even the whole song, just the opening bit over and over, around and around the place. Eventually I Google “time in Denver” to confirm my phone is in the correct time zone. It is. Of course it is. There’s a persistent needling at reality.

Conference organizers have been teasing a surprise guest, a real A-lister. He appears on stage the second morning. It’s Logan Paul, the megapopular YouTuber and prankster who last year gained notoriety for making a video of a dead man in Japan’s “Suicide Forest.”

“I consider myself a man of truth, someone who hates being ignorant,” Paul tells the crowd, spouting off some stats about the moon landing. “I guess I’m not ashamed to say my name is Logan Paul and I think I’m coming out of the Flat Earth closet.” He ends his address with a mic drop.

Conference organizer Robbie Davidson returns to stage, excited. He wants to impress on the audience “the magnitude of what Logan Paul represents. He has 18 million subscribers on YouTube.” The crowd goes “ohhhh!” “He has over four billion views on his videos.” The crowd breaks into cheers and applause.

“This is the first step: someone with a very big following putting their name on the line and saying ‘you know what, I’m almost there. There’s a lot of compelling evidence,’” Davidson says. He says he gave Paul a 30-minute interview for forthcoming YouTube video on the conference. “I have a very good feeling he’s genuine,” Davidson says.

I can say this with confidence: Logan Paul does not believe Earth is flat. I spoke with him outside the convention center the previous morning, where he tried giving the same Flat Earth stump speech through giggles.

“To me it’s just so obvious that obviously the Earth is flat obviously,” Paul tells me. It’s his second attempt at the speech. The first time through, he had to stop for a laugh break.

“Facts,” a team member tells him. “That was really solid. That was more compelling than the first time, I think.”

They’re filming for their YouTube video. Paul probably doesn’t know it, but he’s part of his own conspiracy theory. In 2016, he starred in a YouTube-produced movie called “The Thinning,” about a dystopian world in which the United Nations kills children as part of a population reduction project. Truther communities ate it up, and people still post the trailer in Facebook groups for various conspiracy theories.

A YouTube Revolution

On the first day of the conference, I ask Flat Earthers when they converted. When did they chuck out the globe, renounce outer space as fake, and decide we live on a flat plane covered by a dome?

The answer, for most, is three years ago. That’s when some of the movement’s biggest names launched YouTube channels with hours-long videos explaining not so much why Earth is flat (it isn’t) but why elements of the “globe model” are suspicious, particularly when they clash with a literal reading of the Bible.

“August 2015,” Ginny, a California woman tells me. That’s when a friend forwarded her a video series on Flat Earth. “I spent like three nights wide awake and then I was hooked.”

This is the real currency in the Flat Earth community. Between speeches, everyone is showing each other YouTube videos on their phones. People reference each other by their YouTube names, and twice when I leave my seat I return to find advertisements for YouTube channels on the chair. A panel on Women in Flat Earth is more of a how-to on running a Flat Earth YouTube channel while female.

YouTube wants you watching videos, as many as possible, for as long as possible. It’s the rare conspiracy on which conference-goers and I are in complete agreement. In order to maximize views, the Google-owned video giant recommends videos based on those you already watched. Videos with attention-grabbing titles and hot-button keywords often turn up high in the recommendation algorithm. Start watching videos for less-extreme conspiracy theories like 9/11 trutherism or moon landing hoaxes, and YouTube will eventually recommend you a Flat Earth video.

Conference speaker Joshua Swift tells me a popular Flat Earth video “woke him up” to the movement. “It came on autoplay,” he says. “So I didn’t actively search for Flat Earth. Even months before, I was listening to Alex Jones.”

Unlike most families here, brothers Michael and Daniel Flores are divided on the Flat Earth debate. Mike says it’s flat. Daniel, just tagging along to the conference, says Mike watches too many YouTube videos.

“Your YouTube feed is just confirmation bias,” Daniel tells him. “You’re not getting any astrophysicist videos.”“It’s what you look up,” Mike says.

“It’s getting reinforced,” Daniel says.

Despite the centrality of YouTube algorithms and Facebook discussion groups, a good number of conference-goers believe tech companies are censoring them.

Nathan Thompson is the moderator of Facebook’s largest Flat Earth group, with more than 127,000 members.

“I’ve never experienced censorship like what I experienced since starting the Flat Earth group … [Facebook] ban me all the time,” he says. “YouTube, they’re removing [subscribers] from channels, stopping your view count to make it look like your video’s not popular.”

That his video might be authentically unpopular is out of the question. Someone out there is acting against him, he says. It’s just not clear exactly whom.

World War Flat Earth

Mike “Mad Mike” Hughes is one of the biggest stars on the Flat Earth scene. His conference exhibit—a limousine he used for a world-record stunt jump, and a homemade rocket he rode this year—occupy the coveted space in the center of the Flat Earth Conference vendor room.

A self-taught rocket stuntman who doesn’t believe in science, he’s a hard man to mimic.

So why is someone trying to steal his identity?

“He’s got a fake website of mine: madmikehughes dot live,” Hughes tells me of a website an imposter set up in his name. “I’m Mad Mike Hughes. He’s selling merchandise on it.”

The person has also set up GoFundMe accounts in Hughes’ name. The imposter website solicits donations, advertises InfoWars, and claims to be run by a “Tim Ozman.”

Flat Earth is weird, but this is weird-weird. This is shitposting into oblivion. This is the information equivalent of clear-cutting a forest.

The trouble is that a cluster of characters in the Flat Earth community all claim to be the same Tim Ozman (or Osman, depending on their preferred spelling). Hughes, who ties the name to a 9/11 conspiracy theory, says the real Tim Ozman is his business partner, Jack.

Somewhere in this mess of Tims is a bomb threat and a fake FBI raid. Two months ago, one of the alleged Ozmans uploaded a video accusing Jack of threatening to bomb the Flat Earth conference. In late October, a different YouTube channel claiming to be Ozman uploaded a video purportedly showing an FBI raid on his home in relation to the bomb threat. He claimed the bomb threat was a hoax to silence him.

But the footage is originally from a California CBS affiliate and it’s from May. The video is a hoax about the FBI responding to a hoax between warring Flat Earth factions. Hughes says both channels—the one that reported the bomb threat and the one that reported raid—are fake. I show Hughes a picture of a man I suspect to be Jack/Tim, and Hughes confirms his identity. But that picture comes from footage of a New Mexico town hall meeting, where the man introduced himself as Mark Sargent, a well-known Flat Earth YouTuber who is several decades older.

All these men are impersonating each other.

Hughes’ table in the exhibition hall is stocked with amateur newspapers authored by Jack/Tim. Most of the broadsheet is a screed against his alleged impersonator, whom he claims has stolen his and Hughes’ identities. Hughes suggests the impersonator is an actor, whom truthers link to conspiracies about the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.

“He hasn’t been beat up yet or taken to court,” Hughes says of the impersonator. But the paper suggests another possible explanation for this intricate web of fraud. Hughes and his Ozman are members of a Flat Earth group that describes itself as “anti-media” “autohoaxers.” “We are the ONLY opposition to the controlled opposition,” the paper says of the group.

“Controlled opposition” is a truther term for efforts to undermine conspiracy groups. “Autohoaxers” are a movement that reflexively declares every significant event a hoax, sometimes just for argument’s sake. The group’s manifesto, then, is an appeal to seed confusion and dismantle established facts, in order to let conspiracy run rampant.

Days before the conference, I try entering the group’s chat channel on Discord, a messaging app. Before I’m banned (almost immediately, by users who announce “spy!” when I join) I notice most people have adopted near-identical usernames bashing one of the Flat Earth community’s Tim Ozmans. They’ve taken up Fepe, a Flat Earth-specific variant on the alt-right meme Pepe. Flat Earth is weird, but this is weird-weird. This is shitposting into oblivion. This is the information equivalent of clear-cutting a forest.

Off the Deep End

So why do it? Who benefits from the void of facts?

I ask a number of Flat Earthers about their politics. Many are politically disengaged (“your vote doesn’t count,” three people tell me), but loosely conservative. Most are Christian. Some, if you inquire long enough, say they’ll have to completely rebuild society after everyone realizes the world is flat.

This crowd isn’t necessarily far right. But the openness to extremes and a tendency toward conservative Christianity means far-right language leaks into conversation throughout the conference.

The Globebusters, a Flat Earth YouTube crew, give a presentation linking NASA to the Nazis. The initials of a NASA space-training program spell out the name of a son of Zeus, the Greek god who threw lightning bolts, which clearly are similar to the lightning bolt insignias worn on SS uniforms.

A hundred feet from the mainstage where Globebusters are imagining Nazi symbols, a man named Mike Dees is selling Flat Earth books and apparel. He’s wearing a pewter necklace with a crooked-spoked wheel: a Sonnenrad. The ancient symbol was appropriated by the Nazis and features heavily in neo-Nazi culture today.

“It’s an ancient symbol of the stars. The 24 positions of the Big Dipper,” he says of the symbol. He knows about its other meaning as “the more popularized, misinterpreted trigger symbol” but still wears it because he sees it as “an ancient, cosmic symbol of peace.”

Two tables over, vendors are selling a weighty book on Flat Earth. “Zionist Jews control the educational system,” begins Chapter 33 (“Mind Control”). The second paragraph is a block-quote from the wildly anti-Semitic conspiracy text Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which the Flat Earth author concludes is proof that Jews are trying to hide the Flat Earth, in order to undermine God and control the world.

At the table between Dees’ Sonnenrad and the book on Jewish mind control, Andrea Berglund is selling Flat Earth maps. “The CIA, the FBI,” she tells me when I ask who’s behind a series of alleged cover-ups. “The Jews are involved too.”

Presenter Robert Sungenis, whom the Southern Poverty Law Center has accused of anti-Semitism prefaces a Hebrew word with “as Jews say” and makes a exaggerated, phlegmy-sounding gutternal noise.

Religious conspiracy (some people I speak to at the conference accuse the Freemasons, not the Jews of covering up Flat Earth) and political uncertainty go hand in hand. Embittered by Germany’s loss in World War I, fascists falsely accused the country’s Jews of “stabbing Germany in the back” during the war. The conspiracy theory contributed to the Holocaust under Nazi rule. The ongoing genocide of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Myanmar, during a period of political strife has been fueled by a dramatic increase in anti-Rohingya hate speech and conspiracy on Facebook. In a period of political unrest in America, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and subsequent murders of Jews are on the rise.

When the entire world feels uncertain, it’s no wonder people look for an easy, eliminable culprit. Flat Earthers say the planet is a stationary disk that does not rotate or orbit the sun. But I speak to enough to suspect they still feel off-balance in the world.

Friends at the End of the World

In the vendor hall, Deb Hamm is selling engraved knives. She gets one out of the display box for me. “Flat Earther Gutting The Hoax One Proof At A Time,” its blade reads. It costs $68.

“I’ve changed a number of people’s lives,” Hamm says of Flat Earth belief. Converting people is “hard, but I know enough from studying full-bore for three years that it doesn’t take long.”

“I can’t talk to my daughter,” she said, “but I have three or four friends I’ve made come over and have a beer and let’s watch this video.”

Disavowal by friends or family is a common topic of discussion, especially during question-and-answer panels.

Ginny, the California woman who converted after three straight days of Flat Earth videos, asks how she might “come out” as a Flat Earther on Facebook. The conference is particularly important to her, she says, as she’s just lost her home in the ongoing California wildfires.

After the panel, I catch up with Ginny and her friend Suzanne, who tells me she’s probably also lost her house. It’s located in an evacuation zone, so she can’t be certain. Her mother, who lives in the zone, is missing. If she’s dead, Suzanne hopes she went quickly. She’s heartbroken, she says. At first she felt “a little guilty” coming to the Flat Earth conference amid all that ruin, but there’s nothing she can do until the evacuation order lifts, anyway. Being here among like-minded people is helping, Suzanne says.

Conference-goers are exceedingly kind. A family invites me to breakfast, where they tell me that druids are real and the Sandy Hook massacre was fake. This is just what she’d tell me if I were her kid, the mother explains.

Most presentations I watch follow a similar pattern. The speakers makes some reference to the ridicule Flat Earthers face. On the first morning, conference master of ceremonies Rick Hummer asks what insults the audience has heard. “Crazy,” someone shouts. Others: “Retard!” “Flattard!” (Hummer repeats the routine on the conference’s second day.) The speakers go on to discuss the joy of being around like-minded (“open-minded”) people. As for the substance of the presentations, many are excerpted from YouTube videos the audience has already seen.

Sure there are schisms. Multiple YouTubers make snipes at other YouTubers during their presentations. Trolls like one or more of the Tim Ozmans make bomb threats. All the major speakers are at odds with the Flat Earth Society, whom many describe as “controlled opposition.” The first night concludes with a formal debate between a Christian literalist who believes Earth is flat and a Christian literalist who believes Earth is round but that the solar system orbits Earth, not the sun.

But overall, the conference is a barrage of reinforcement. Earth is flat and you’re here with your Flat Earth family. Earth is flat and you’re here with your Flat Earth family.

I take a break from a presentation to type in the lobby. Two strangers, a man and a woman, sit down across from me, and over the course of a long conversation, scooch closer and closer to each other until I relocate to another couch. For all the presenters’ talk of open-mindedness and debate, people are really looking for others like them.

“My question is, we know the Earth is flat,” a conference-goer named Melody asks speakers during a question-and-answer panel. “What do we do now?”

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